Do The Experiences of African Immigrants Prove That Culture Determines Success In America?

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The way that we discuss the experiences of black immigrants to the United States is to construct a narrative of economic success, which is then contrasted against the persistent wealth and income gap between black and white Americans. The thing that is being suggested by the mythology of black immigrant success in the United States is that any lingering economic disparities are due to differences in culture and values rather than systemic, structural and institutional racism, and that the expansion of the welfare state perpetuates the failure of native-born black Americans to succeed.

We are told that black immigrants are highly motivated and are willing to make great sacrifices in order to get ahead. They are said to value education, have stronger entrepreneurial instincts, and to be more family-oriented than their black American counterparts. In the “land of opportunity” these values and this work ethic pay economic dividends, according to this story. A series of reports by Algernon Austin and Patrick Mason of The Economic Policy Institute (EPI) over the past year are challenging this narrative.

In a February 2011 briefing paper for EPI titled The Low Wages of Black Immigrants, Austin and Mason argue that the “wage penalties” for black immigrant workers is similar to that for native born black Americans. What the authors mean by the term “wage penalties” is the difference, all other things being equal, in income, poverty rates, and rates of unemployment between black and white Americans. The authors argue that these wage penalties can be found for black immigrants despite the fact that they have many of the same cultural attributes that those who have been promoting the myth of black immigrant success have said should make a difference in economic outcomes.

While black immigrants have higher marriage rates, lower unemployment rates and lower rates of poverty than native-born black Americans, they have comparable outcomes with US born blacks in weekly wages. The sharpest contrast occurs when one breaks out the different categories of foreign born black males and compares their income with those of non-Hispanic white American males. U.S. born black males, between 2001-07, earned 19.1% less than their white counterparts; for West Indian blacks the deficit was 20.7%; for Haitians it was 33.8%; and for Africans the difference was 34.7%.

By contrast, the number of non-Hispanic whites who earned a Bachelor’s degree or higher in 2008, for persons 25 years old or older, was 29.5%; for U.S.-born blacks it was 16.4%; for West Indians it was 20.6%; for Haitians it was 16.1%; and for Africans it was 36.6%. A similar pattern was reflected in marriage rates. For non-Hispanic whites between 25 and 44 years of age, the marriage rate was 58.5%; for U.S.-born blacks it was 31.6%; for West Indians the rate was 48.2%; for Haitians it was 51.5%; and for Africans it was 56%.

While the cultural values that black immigrants bring with them to the United States, especially in terms of family and community networks, provide an example that many U.S.-born blacks could be inspired by, the studies suggest that more traditional cultural norms and higher education are not panaceas for reducing the economic disparities that persist between blacks and whites in America. Race still matters.

C. Matthew Hawkins blogs on “post-blackness”: and is the author of two e-books: Black Racial Identity and Schooling and All Night Conversations About Religion and Spirituality. Both books are available exclusively from Amazon.

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